Woods Hole joins search for missing Air France plane

Unmanned submarines are to be used as part of an international sea search operation to locate the deep-sea wreck site of Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in June 2009, and to retrieve the flight recorders from the Airbus A330.

The new recovery mission, expected to last around a month, will include the use of three autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) designed and operated by the US-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

Two of the REMUS 6000 vehicles are owned by the Waitt Institute for Discovery; the third is owned by IFM-GEOMAR of Germany.

These autonomous undersea vehicles are designed to operate in depths up to 6,000 metres (19,685 feet or 3.73 miles). As each vehicle covers an area in a "mowing" type pattern, it employs side-scan sonar to survey up to 600 metres to its left and right.

Capable of staying underwater for up to 20 hours at a time, REMUS then returns to the ship, where scientists immediately download its data. If the data contains evidence of any debris or other items of interest undersea, a vehicle will be dispatched to gather more detailed, up-close images using high-resolution cameras.

The AUVs will be operated from the Norwegian ship, the M/V Seabed Worker, which will also be equipped with the Triton XLX remotely operated vehicle (ROV). The mission will also employ the M/V Anne Candies, out of New Orleans, which will carry the towed side-scan sonar Orion and the CURV21 ROV, both operated for the US Navy by Phoenix International.

"Few institutions are as well equipped as WHOI for this mission," said David Gallo, WHOI director of special projects. "The Mid-Ocean Ridge is a feature that we have been exploring for more than 30 years. The terrain will be extremely rugged and the search will be difficult, but this is something that we have been doing as a part of our mission to explore and understand the global oceans."

The Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses, BEA, the French office of investigation and analysis for civil aviation safety is leading the safety investigation and is responsible for all phases of the operation.

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